Phill Niblock

Phill Niblock reflects on Experimental Intermedia and his loft performances

Phill Niblock, China 88 110, 1988, archival pigment print.

Experimental music doyen Phill Niblock has been making photographs since his 1958 arrival to New York, where he cut his teeth documenting the performances of jazz greats like Duke Ellington. A decade later, Niblock began the work for which he is best (if still under-) known: multiscreen audiovisual installations scored by drones, built around microtones generated by instruments from cello to bagpipe to saxophone. “Working Photos,” a solo exhibition at New York’s Fridman Gallery on view through Janury 5, 2020, draws on over a half-century of artmaking triangulated between photography, cinema, and sound. Below, the Experimental Intermedia director discusses composition, accessibility, and card games.

DOING PHOTOGRAPHY was extremely easy and direct for me. Both the technology and the vision: I saw and I could compose. I did all the things that photographers should do that people who use iPhones to take photographs never do. Cameras are tactile, and recording stuff can be too . . . though less so now. It goes much faster, digital. There’s a lot of cutting in China 88 and Japan 89, two films that I edited a couple years ago and am just now releasing. It’s amazing how different it looks now because I could color correct and make trims of every shot. These were works that have been projected for a long time, so there was all kinds of dust and crap on the film. And we just take out one frame, with the dust. So maybe two or four hundred one-frame cuts in the films. But you don’t see anything when you're looking at it. Now the computers are much faster so you can run them and really dissolve the images; five years ago they simply weren’t fast enough. For recording performances at my loft, I used to love using an Otari 5050-B tape recorder, which is a beautiful machine. I hated switching to Digital Audio Tape (DATs) in a way. Now DATs are a real drag because they’re falling apart. I have a huge box of concert recordings and they’re starting to rot. I’m trying to get them to the Lincoln Center Public Library.

Intermedia is not my favorite term. But I suppose it works. I’m not sure I agree with all of the philosophical statements of Dick Higgins, who originated the term. Elaine Summers, who immediately liked the word very much, founded Experimental Intermedia in 1968. The concert series, hosted at my loft on Centre Street, started in 1973. I’ve been in the same loft for fifty-one years. Who can imagine living in New York in a place like that for fifty-one years? I try to leave it exactly the way I found it. Everybody who came to SoHo—all the doctors and lawyers who bought buildings or got involved in buildings—made apartments out of them. I was interested in keeping it as bare as it was. Even the rooms that are there now, the kitchen and the recording booth, were offices of the company that was there before me. I expected to use it as a production space when I moved and I never did; I never really shot anything there. It became a performance space with other people’s music. Not everyone has performed at my loft, but a lot of people have, that’s for sure. We actually thought about doing something with John Cage just before he died. I was fairly close with Cage, but Experimental Intermedia is fundamentally an emerging composers series. Even though many of the composers are older, they’re still fairly emerging. I hold an annual six-hour-long Winter Solstice concert, where there would be two or three hundred people at the loft. I can’t do that now because the landlord sued. He’s interested in getting me out, so he sued me for being a nuisance. We’ve kept the price to get into the Experimental Intermedia Concerts as a donation of $4.99. I had to start doing the Solstice concert at Roulette.

The music is about the movement of the sound in the space. My first intermedia piece with 16-mm projections, slide projections, and sound was in December of ’68. It was a Judson Church show. I made a thirty-six-foot wide modular screen with thirteen pieces of two-by-two wood. You take these long bolts with a wingnut and use triangles to hold it together. I also made a piece from Judson’s organ and played it. The concert actually began with Meredith Monk playing the organ as the audience arrived. At some point, she gets up, walks down and sits in the audience but the organ continues. So I made a recording and I played the recording and faded it in; Monk stopped playing, but the recording was still going. I come from an era of hi-fi. The whole idea of having a sound system do the work—that the music is reproduced through a sound system—is the very essence of the music. I just did this three-hour concert in Luxembourg and it was all on one file. I play the file and then play solitaire on my phone, out of sight. I practice a lot. If I don’t play solitaire every few days I get a little bit jittery. It’s very concentrating because you have to really look at the cards carefully. And when you mess up and you miss one, it’s like, Oh shit.